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Is Paying People Not to Commit Crimes Effective?

Washington, D.C., may offer some people financial incentives to follow the law. It wouldn't be the first.

If the threat of jail or job loss isn’t enough incentive not to commit a crime, here’s one more: cash money.

That’s the tactic Washington, D.C., is considering after the city suffered an alarming 54 percent increase in its murder rate last year. A similar approach in Richmond, Calif., has helped to reduce crime.

The city council in D.C. gave unanimous but preliminary approval to a bill earlier this month that would identify up to 200 young people a year considered at risk of either committing or becoming victims of violent crime. If they complete behavioral therapy, life planning and mentorship programs run by the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement -- and stay crime-free the entire year -- they would get paid.

The bill doesn't specify how much participants could earn, but the program would cost an average of $1.2 million a year for the first four years, including $460,000 for stipends.

In Richmond, which took a similar approach starting in 2007, participants can receive up to $9,000 a year. Advocates say it has contributed to a 77 percent drop in homicides.

While the idea of pre-empting crime through cash is rare, it wouldn't be the first time a city has paid residents to do the right thing.

Marion, Ala., for example, is trying to stem a tuberculosis (TB) outbreak by paying people to get a TB test. Marion is in a rural area where many residents distrust medical care, largely due to poor access and lack of money to pay for treatment. Cash for grades programs, which are typically privately funded, give money to students who earn good grades or high test scores on Advanced Placement and SAT exams.

Paying people to do what they're supposed to be doing already may sound odd, but supporters of the approach say financial incentives can prevent or alleviate larger problems. Skeptics, however, question how much impact the stipend part of this approach really has.

Gun deaths and assaults have fallen since the Richmond program started, but critics say other factors -- such as the national decline in violent crime over the past decade -- had more to do with it. Overall crime has also gone down in Richmond since 2007, according to the website City-Data, although assaults, burglaries and thefts have increased.

The prevention programs echo a larger trend in government of experimenting with new ways to solve some of society's biggest problems.

"Pay for success" programs, for example, seek private financing for preventive government solutions that are based on academic research. Governments only pay back private financiers if the programs prove successful. It's an idea that's been tried in the United Kingdom but has been embraced only relatively recently in the U.S. 

Academic studies have shown the benefits of behavioral therapy as a way to reduce recidivism, and stipends have been shown to change people's behavior in some scenarios such as getting people to quit smoking.

But John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who advises pay for success projects, said there isn't solid research yet on whether stipends are effective at reducing criminal behavior. “This is again just throwing money at the problem," he said.

In Washington, the anti-crime bill introduced by Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie would establish an Office of Violence Prevention and Health Equity; require D.C. to develop a public health strategy using risk assessment tools, cognitive- and family-based therapy and service coordination; and would create a mental health training program for police officers.

It will face a final council vote on March 1. If passed, it heads to Mayor Muriel Bowser, who hasn't yet taken a position on the proposal.

Liz Farmer is a former GOVERNING fiscal policy writer.
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